The ground underfoot is dark, dank woodland and there are strange, other-worldly sounds whirling through the air, that may be ominous or might be soothing. This is the setting created by a huge video screen overhead and five musicians on one side of the stage. Leading the performance is Patti Smith, on the other side of the stage. Dressed casually in jeans and a dark jacket, her wild grey hair free around her shoulders, she still strongly conveys much of the look of her iconic punk priestess self of earlier times. However, tonight is a chance to hear her interpret the words of Nico, the late German singer, musician, songwriter and actress, in a show entitled Killer Road.
I’d read somewhere, before the show, that the footage of woodland paths that open the filmic dimension of the event, is taken from the place where Nico was cycling in Ibiza when she died in 1988. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I still feel almost a tinge of horror film spectacle as the scene unfolds, but this is quickly and completely dispelled by the words that fall from the mouth of Smith as the evening unfurls like a kaleidoscopic dreamscape.
“Sometimes we must keep from bringing certain thoughts up to the light”, murmurs the performer in the opening ritual of Purple Lips. “I have been looking out for him from over this broken bridge,” she continues, echoing the often solitary and mournful themes in Nico’s world of words. Smith hugs herself as if chilled by the emotion.
“My loneliness remains attending,” she repeats many times, as she moves into The Sphinx. Smith’s skill in delivering repeated phrases with subtle differences of emphasis peels new layers of meaning from the words.
The woodland morphs into ever changing light patterns and then back and forth to forestry, water and the shadowy figure of a woman. We move from the recognisable to the mystifying and emerge with a sense of the mystical.
Smith removes her glasses, smiles and launches into I WIll Be Seven, momentarily uprooting the mood of the evening. Yet, there is something haunting in this work, too. “I will be seven, when we meet in heaven”, she repeats. Is this a beautiful tale of a return to innocence or some terrible chant of infant loss? It could be read either way as we sit in the pews of a quiet church, hypnotised by Smith and the musicians, who play loops of music created with an array of strange instruments, including bowls and strings.
As the performance ends, I realise I have been taken into some kind of trance or meditation, where I barely remember the last song/reading. The evening ends with a bow from the group and a feeling of having glimpsed not just a tribute to an artist, but a journey from turmoil to peace. Which one can only hope reflects the journey Nico’s spirit has made.
Words by Imelda Michalczyk. 27 October 2014. Photography by Mark Allen for the Barbican.